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While Some Spring Breakers Swarm Beaches, Many Stay Home, Dreaming Of Summer Travel

Normally, this is the time of year many Americans would be packing their bags for a spring break trip.

But as we all know, things are still far from normal, and for many of us, our suitcases will remain in the attic collecting dust.

Because even as vaccination rates improve, with more than 60 million Americans now having received at least a first dose, it appears fewer Americans are planning to travel this spring than usual, as public health officials continue to urge people to stay home.

Many college students, who used to see spring break as an opportunity to earn a couple of extra Bs - as in beaches and beer - are being forced to stay put. For the second consecutive spring, many colleges and universities are cancelling or shortening the annual week off. And one school that isn't, the University of California - Davis, is offering to pay students $75 to have a "stay-cation" and remain at home or on campus for the week. It's an effort to keep students from spreading the still dangerous coronavirus at a time many are growing weary of pandemic restrictions and think it may now be O.K. to let their guard down.

Many family trips to resorts and theme parks are also being put on hold, as a new survey on behalf of the reeling travel industry shows.

"Disappointingly, only 12% of respondents said they're planning travel for spring break," says Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, citing polling data by Destination Analysts.

"What is a little more concerning to me is just last week, that (figure) was 16%, so it's down from last week, when we were thinking everything was starting to go in the right direction," he says.

Dow says recent bad news about new coronavirus variants appears to be cooling a mini-industry warm up, as more people have been traveling.

The TSA says the number of people passing through airport security checkpoints has topped 1 million a dozen times since Feb. 12. That happened only 13 times between Mar. 17 and Dec. 31, 2020, and 12 of those occasions were over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday periods.

Hotel occupancy rates are also rising, especially in popular spring break destinations, including Galveston, Texas, and Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach in Florida, two states that have rescinded mask mandates and lifted capacity restrictions at bars, restaurants and other businesses.

Beachgoers take advantage of the weather as they spend time on Clearwater Beach Tuesday, March 2, in Clearwater, Fla., a popular spring break destination, west of Tampa. Colleges around the U.S. are scaling back spring break or canceling it entirely to discourage beachfront partying that could raise infection rates back on campus.
Chris O'Meara / AP
Beachgoers take advantage of the weather as they spend time on Clearwater Beach Tuesday, March 2, in Clearwater, Fla., a popular spring break destination, west of Tampa. Colleges around the U.S. are scaling back spring break or canceling it entirely to discourage beachfront partying that could raise infection rates back on campus.

And to be sure, tens of thousands of people are spring breaking, pandemic notwithstanding.

An estimated 300,000 people are gathering at Daytona Beach this week for the annual Bike Week motorcycle rally. That's down from the half a million that usually attend, but, nonetheless, worrying to public health officials.

All four Disney World theme parks in Orlando, which are limiting capacity to 35%, are sold out for every day next week.

Spring breakers are crowding onto the beaches and into the bars in Miami Beach, as Gov. Ron DeSantis has not only lifted all travel restriction and a statewide mask mandate, but he's also prohibited local governments from enforcing their own public health orders.

"When he opened everything up that he was going to make it gratuitously more difficult to control the virus by eliminating our ability to actually impose an actual fine," Miami Beach mayor Dan Gelber told NPR's All Things Considered this week. "First of all, I don't want to be a superspreader. I don't want to be responsible for people getting sick so close to the end of this horrible episode simply because, you know, a few people or more than a few were very irresponsible. That endangers our workers. It endangers our residents. And honestly, it endangers a lot of communities nearby and far away."

Meanwhile, spring break crowds are gathering in Myrtle Beach, S.C., South Padre Island, Texas and Nashville, as Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is actively courting spring breakers to his state. "We're open for business!" Lee tweeted. "Look forward to welcoming spring break visitors and summer road-trippers to the Tennessee experience."

Public health officials are concerned that even modest increases in spring break travel could lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases when spring breakers return home, as they say the country is not out of the pandemic woods yet.

"Every time that there's a surge in travel, we have a surge in cases in this country," said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a recent White House COVID-19 task force briefing. "We know that many of our variants have emerged from international places, and we know that the travel corridor is a place where people are mixing a lot. We are really trying to restrain travel at this current period of time."

"Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19," the CDC's "Spring Break Travel" page states. "CDC recommends that you do not travel at this time."

But Walensky hints that as more Americans become vaccinated, travel restrictions may no longer be needed.

"We're hopeful that our next set of guidance will have more science around what vaccinated people can do, perhaps travel being among them," she said. "We are at a critical point in this pandemic. We ask for your patience in practicing proven prevention measures for just a little longer."

It's a conundrum for those who make their living in the travel industry, The U.S. Travel Association, which represents airlines, hotels, tour operators, rental car companies and others in the tourism industry encourages would be travelers to follow public health guidelines, but in the meantime, their businesses and employees are taking a beating in the pandemic. CEO Roger Dow points to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that nearly 40% of all U.S. jobs lost due to the pandemic are in the travel, leisure and hospitality sector.

"The U.S. economy just can't recover unless the travel industry is healthy and recovering," says Dow, adding, "and we really can't recover travel until we get this pandemic is under control."

But many Americans appear to feel that day is coming, and their online travel searches show they're itching to hit the road.

"What we're beginning to see in the beginning of 2021 is a recovery from that deepest depression in demand" during much of 2020, says Hayley Berg, an economist with the airfare and hotel price tracking app Hopper.

She says searches for flights are up substantially across the board, with many would-be travelers favoring domestic destinations, as searches for domestic flights are up 58% since January, while searches for international flights are up 21%.

"Those numbers are growing faster and faster each week," Berg says, adding that "we're seeing demand is moving very closely in line with the news cycles and what we're learning about COVID case rates and vaccination rates."

For example, when President Biden last week promised there would be enough vaccines available for every American adult by the end of May, there was a surge in online travel searches. A similar travel search increase followed the news of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine approval.

But Berg says most searchers are not looking to travel right away.

"We're fully anticipating a big surge in demand (for travel in) late spring and through summer," she says.

"There is clear pent up demand for travel," says Audrey Hendley, president of American Express Travel, which released a report this week on global consumer travel sentiment.

She says many people are not just searching.

"They're ready to book even if they know they may have to cancel their trip in the future. And we're calling that shift the 'book now, figure it out later' mentality."

That's the result of airlines and hotels offering more flexible change and cancellation policies, as it's still unclear when some countries may reopen their borders and lift travel restrictions.

But even with so much uncertainty about the future of travel, Hendley says many people find being bitten by the travel bug is good for the pandemic-weary soul.

"We're seeing that even the act of planning a trip and have a positive impact on our mental health and well-being, it just gives us a sense of optimism, feeling hopeful, feeling excited," Hendley says. "And in fact, 87% of survey respondents agreed that having a trip planned in the future just gives them something (positive) to look forward to."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.